Contemporary Reviews of We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea


Evening Standard, 11th November 1937 (Howard Spring)

They Keep on Sailing

Mr. Arthur Ransome's four water-loving chilren appear once more in his new book, which will be published tromorrow - We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. They are holidaying in the neighbourhood of Harwich. They make friends with Jim Brading, owner of the Goblin, a little white cutter with red sails and from the moment when Jim invites them all to sleep aboard their adventure begins.

There would have been no adventure at all if Jim, who went ashore, had come back as they had expected him to do, or if John, who was left in charge, had realised that an anchor which is long enough when the tide begins to rise is no good when there's twice as much water under the ship.

They lost that anchor; they drifted out to sea in a fog, the wind began to blow them east by a little south, and John made up his mind, very wisely, that the only safe thing was to keep on sailing.

The book is the record of that uncovenanted voyage which ended in Holland, of the rain and the wind, the darkness and the wild water, the escapes from buoys and from ships crossing in the night, the courage and the resource of the children, especially of John and Susan who faced with the necessity of doing something they had never done before, made a job of it by using their brains.

Once more Mr. Ransome makes clear what the children did. This is the central point of his success as a writer. He is practical. If a knot is tied, he will make us know how it is tied, and ten to one he will draw a picture of it.

Hitherto, sailing with Ransome has been rather a park-lake affair, but this time he really lets us in for it. Children who know nothing about sailing will here learn something; those who know a little will learn more; and those who know quite a lot will see how much more there is to learn and how delightful the teaching can be.

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Times Literary Supplement, 13th November 1937 (Anonymous)

Lucky and plucky children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker - famous as the Swallows - have an adventure that may well make the ordinary family holiday seem a tame affair and cause envy to seethe in many a young, sea-loving heart. They make friends with a young man who has just sailed his little yacht the Goblin from Dover to Pin Mill on the Orwell river, where the young Walkers are staying. Permission to spend a night on board the Goblin, on condition that they do not go outside Harwich Harbour, leads to a truly thrilling three days. Nothing could be more honourable than everyone's intentions, nobody more conscientious than Jim Brading, the owner of the yacht, no more obedient, trustworthy children than the Swallows. But adventures simply happen to some people and not to others.

Jim has bad luck. Going ashore he meets with an accident that lands him in hospital where he remains unconscious for forty-eight hours. The Goblin has an accident and loses her chain and anchor and drifts out to sea. John proves to be the worthy son of a sailor father, Susan heroic over sea-sickness, Roger and Titty resourceful, brave and sensible. There is a wealth of nautical detail and a pocketful of information, advice and instruction for future sea-goers in the narrative that follows the moment when the dauntless Swallows find themselves in the North Sea. Not everyone could be so sturdy and so intelligent as John, and boys and girls will admire his pluck. By this time Arthur Ransome's adventure books are an institution, and Christmas is the richer because of his invention, gravity, and solid matter. Here are real children using their faculties and keeping their wits when they are shrewdly tested; boys and girls doing real things that call for cool heads and judgment, and satisfy the need for an imaginative outlet.

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New Statesman, 4th December 1937 (David Garnett)

This review is taken from Garnett's regular 'Books in General' column. The Mrs Brecker to whom he refers was May Lambtom Becker whose Choosing Books for Children (Oxford University Press) was discussed in the column. Ransome took exception to Garnett's reference to 'the washy pretence that parents and children are never at odds', annotating his copy of the review that 'David must have had a queer time with Edward and Constance Garnett' (Brogan Life p. 357). You may wish to test Garnett's assertion that Jefferies' Bevis and Mark 'have ten times the life of any of the Swallows'.

Mrs Brecker and I agree with all children in liking Arthur Ransome's books, and the latest addition We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is, I think, the most exciting of the whole Swallows and Amazon series. The weakness of contemporary children's books is that the characters in them are almost always polite, rational and well-behaved citizens of a sensibly managed world. Strangely enough, this false picture is the work of a generation of violent rebels, who defied Victorian conventions and morality. Why don't they ever represent the grown-up world in its true light - with human children having to fight for their own hand? Bevis stands out because the boys are real, not naughty nor inhuman, and living in their own detached world. Ransome's chief fault is that he supports the washy pretence that parents and children are never at odds. Jefferies knew better, and Bevis and Mark have ten times the life of any of the Swallows. Mr. Ransome's other fault has been that Titty's dream world borders on the embarrassing. But his tremendous merit is that he has a passionate interest in explaining how to do things that children want to do, and knows exactly how failures occur. The Swallows' mother , Mrs. Walker, is frankly a blot; but in this book a glorious series of accidents sends the Swallows drifting out into the North Sea alone in a thick fog, in a well-found little cutter. There they are faced by an emergency, and they act as any brave and intelligent children who know something about sailing would behave if they were not too seasick. Every detail in the night of sailing, with its dangers and thrills and fatigues, is splendidly told and completely convincing. The only weakness comes when they find themselves in Flushing Harbour and Commander Walker spots them from the Harwich boat. Some miraculous intervention is, however, essential at that moment unless the book is to have a tame finish, and Mr. Ransome's solution is probably the best. My tip to parents is to give We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea and then to follow it up, on the first available birthday, with Racundra's First Cruise, which describes Mr. Ransome's own adventures sailing among the islands of the Baltic. There are no weak spots in that, and children love it.

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Sunday Times, 5th December 1937 (Anonymous)

This is the seventh of the Arthjur Rasome books about the Swallows and the Amazons, and I really think it is the best. The reader's attention is taken on the very first page, and there is no slackening of interest throughout the whole of a really long and eventful story. The Swallows take part in the adventure without the Amazons, and it comes about very simply and accidentally through a slipping anchor. Anyone who reads it intelligently - and it is almost impossible to do otherwise, that is one of the glories of the Ransome stories - is bound to learn a great deal about a boat and fog, foghorn regulations, buoys. The danger to the little party on board the Goblin strikes the reader so vividly that it is impossible to drop the book until the safe issue is reached. It is a grand story for boys as well as girls, and certain to be first choice on thousands of present lists this Christmas.

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Punch, 8th December 1937 (Anonymous)

North Sea Adventure

The young people whom Mr. ARTHUR RANSOME chronicles so delightfully each Christmas have already crammed into a few years as many exciting happenings as fall to the lot of less fortunate folk in the course of a long lifetime. Their latest adventure, as chronicled in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea (JONATHAN CAPE, 7/6) is perhaps the best of all. The redoubtable Walker family - John, Susan, Titty ands Roger (too bad of Mr RANSOME to leave Captain Nancy and the D's out of such a good show as this) - are invited to spend a few days on board the yacht Goblin pottering about Harwich Harbour. "Nothing can possibly happen," their host assures them when he goes ashore for a can of petrol. But with the Walkers aboard the reader feels pleasantly assured that something both can and will happen. Just what does is told with all that wealth of practical detail, both nautical and culinary, and satisfying sense of reality which make Mr RANSOME so unfailingly successful in meeting the requirements of probably the most difficult and exacting of audiences.

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New York Herald Tribune, 1st May 1938 (Anonymous)

ARTHUR RANSOME may go down in history as one author who wrote books for young people in a series that began from the first every time. It is an art. He practices it in various ways. Sometimes the scene changes, sometimes the time of year transforms the scene: often a few favourite characters come in without clogging the stage; sometimes a minor character, staying through other books in the wings, suddenly takes a leading part. However it happens, the result is the same; you can start anywhere. Here, for instance, you find in the first chapter a family of young folks - John, Roger, Susan and Titty - sitting in a borrowed dinghy on the river near Ipswich, and may know no more about them than you at once find out - that they have had plenty of experience in open craft but never the chance to sleep on board a boat with a cabin. That is all you need to know to start fair with any one who began his Ransome with "Swallows and Amazons."

There is among all these boarts one called Goblin, owned by a trustworthy young man named Jim who would be delighted to take them along. The children are spending the best of all holidays: in the country, enjoying a freedom from supervision earned, and therefore appreciated, by a year's practically complete supervision in school. They swim like ducks and know small craft by heart. All that mother requires is that they be back in time to meet father when he returns from the Continent via Harwich. That gives them two days. So the children settle gleefully, Jim rows back for supplies, and a heavy fog lets down. No Jim. Anchor and chain go over the side in a nerve-straining mishap. They are drifting blind.

The next two days are one thrill after another. The children take all that happens as naturally as normal children do. They even manage to rescue a kitten floating by on a spar. A Woolworth unbreakable plate has to serve as a port light, by holding it in front of their torch. Passing Beach End Buoy, they are out at sea. But when at last the fog lifts and they sight land, they have no notion of what land it may be. Having gone so far on a strictly realistic basis, I think they should be permitted a short stretch of the long arm of coincidence. They make port, just where father is about to take ship for England. When the Dutch pilot who has brought them in finds that four children have brought the Goblin across the North Sea - "and it blows: I would not cross the North Sea mine self in so small a boat" - he congratulates father. Anybody would, not alone for their seamanship. They are fine children, as the pilot firmly states.

Oh, yes, there was a good reason why Jim did not get back in time.

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Library Journal 63, 15th May 1938 (Elizabeth D. Briggs)

John, Susan, Titty and Roger, otherwise known as the Walkers, found thrills and excitement in large measure when, invited by Jim Brading to spend a few days and nights aboard his small yacht, the "Goblin," in Harwich Harbour, unforeseen circumstances separated Jim from his boat and its crew. The Swallows did not mean to go to sea, but enveloped in fog, the "Goblin" is driven by wind and waves not only to sea but to the coast of Holland. The courage and character of the young people were tested by the grueling experience of handling a strange vessel on stormy seas, but all ended safely and satisfactorily. A wholly improbable but absorbing tale which readers of the other "Swallow" stories will enjoy.

On 1st November 1938, the Library Journal (p. 821) returned to We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea in the course of a review by Ruth H. Hill. She wrote:

Arthur Ransome is at his best in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. Here are the original four Walkers - Susan, John, Titty and Roger - in a story that must have happened, so real it seems.It sweeps along as rapidly as the storm that carried the children out to sea and the children's reactions are so true to character and the sequence of events so right that it is almost as though the story told itself with no help from an author. The end leaves one feeling not only completely satisfied, but refreshed as though some of the sea spray had splashed the reader.

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Horn Book May/June 1938, p. 168 (Anonymous)

When the Walkers, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, find themselves, through no coult of their own, adrift in Jim Bradig's yacht The Goblin, in a fog-bound harbor, Johns tkes command and finally succeeds in raising enough sail to get the boat under control. A heavy storm prevents them from turnng back and so, with many narrow escapes from collision with larger craft and dangerous shoals, they are at last driven out to sea. The storm passes, the stars come out. John, leaning against the tiller, thrills to the triumphant motion of the little ship and is filled with a serious kind of joy. "He and the Goblin together. On and on. On and on. Years and years hence, when he was grown up, he would have a ship of his own and sail her out into wider seas than this. But he would always and always remember this night when ship and crew were in his charge, his alone." How the children in the morning find that they have sailed across the North Sea, how they are taken into port by an admiring Dutch pilot, how they unexpectedly meet their father and make the return trip to an anxiously waiting mother and Jim Brading makes a story full of excitement and sustained interest. The author has not written a better story.

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea was also mentioned in the 'Three Owls' Notebook' by Anne Carroll Moore in the same publication (p. 170):

It is a test of the credibility and freshness of Arthur Ransome's writing that I could find myself utterly absorbed in his We Didn's Mean to Go to Sea )Macmillan, $2.00). As a story I found it more convincing, as well as more exciting, than sailing with the same children over Lake Windermere. I also like Mr. Ransome's own illustrations and the clear type page and general format of the book. Indeed, if I were awarding a prize book for vacation reading I would give it to We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. It puts one so completely in the mood of a real vacation.

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I am grateful to Wayne G. Hammond for help in identifying these reviews